President Bush is timing his drive for U.N. backing against Iraq to the next report by U.N. weapons inspectors, hoping it will convince the Security Council that force may be the only way to disarm Saddam Hussein.
The report is due on Saturday, but chief inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei are not expected to appear to answer council questions until March 7. The United States and its partners, Britain and Spain, plan to push for a council vote soon afterward.
"The main thing," Bush national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said Monday, "is to get everybody focused on bringing this to a conclusion."
Rice, again, raised the threat of war with Iraq without U.N. approval.
"If the Security Council is unable to act we will have to act with a coalition of the willing," she said, quoting Bush.
After a round of talks with top Bush administration officials on Monday, German opposition leader Angela Merkel said she had learned "there is some time to try to find a common position" between the French-led anti-war bloc and the United States and its handful of supporters.
And Jeremy Greenstock, Britain's U.N. representative, said on the PBS' program NewsHour With Jim Lehrer: "We haven't set a deadline because we didn't want to play the ultimatum game."
But, Greenstock said, "the speculation that this is a small number of weeks and not a large number of months is, I think, correct, and we can look at the second week of March as the period when I think this will come to a climax."
In the interim, Bush is heading a persistent and uphill diplomatic campaign. With nine votes required for approval of the resolution presented by the United States, Britain and Spain, only one other nation on the council, Bulgaria, is known to be solidly behind them.
In the meantime, France, Russia and Germany have countered with a proposal to avert war by strengthening and expanding U.N. weapons inspections.
In another development, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, in an interview with CBS, challenged Bush to a debate on live television.
"I am ready to conduct a direct dialogue -- a debate -- with your president," CBS quoted Saddam as saying. "I will say what I want and he will say what he wants."
"There is no debating his need to disarm," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
The last report by the inspectors on Feb. 14 did not strengthen the U.S. hand. While Secretary of State Colin Powell said it reflected only improvement in process, not Iraqi cooperation, France and most other council members said the report showed inspections were paying off and should be extended.
Bush is concentrating his lobbying on world leaders already in the U.S. camp. He talked by telephone Monday with President Ion Iliescu of Romania, who supports using force sooner rather than later.
But the president is likely to widen the net in the days ahead. And he plans a speech Wednesday night at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research center in Washington, to argue that removing Saddam from power would improve life in Iraq and help Middle East stability.
"You begin with your sponsors and then you move forward from there to build support beyond the sponsorship," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said in discussing U.S. strategy.
At the same time, the president is treading carefully with French President Jacques Chirac, who heads the anti-war bloc. Bush and Powell have avoided a public scrap with the French leader and affirmed the right of other nations to dissent from the U.S. view.
Chirac announced a step-by-step disarmament plan Monday designed to avert war. He has the support of Germany, which currently holds the U.N. Security Council presidency, and Russia, which like France has the power to kill the resolution with a veto.
The proposal could collide with the U.S.-British-Spanish resolution presented Monday that seeks support for force against Iraq.
"We see no reason to change our logic, which is the logic of peace, and turn toward a logic of war," Chirac said as he met German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in Berlin, where anti-war sentiment is substantial.
Much of the U.S. public also favors a go-slow approach. In an ABC News-Washington Post poll, 56 percent said they wanted to see the United States win over more of the Security Council's membership before attacking, even if that takes more time. Thirty-nine percent said this country should move quickly against Iraq even if that means acting without the Security Council's support.
At the United Nations, the U.S. strategy is to focus, at the outset, on the 10 countries that are not permanent members of the Security Council, hoping to win the backing of at least seven of them. With the United States and Britain that would add up to the minimum nine votes required for passage of the new resolution.
Then the strategy calls for going after Russia, France and China, all veto-holding nations, to convince them not to veto the resolution.